Yes, population does matter, but we need to focus on individual consumption

By Andy Hunter-Rossall

We are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. That is hard to deny. Earth Overshoot Day is a great way to visualise this over-consumption. Falling on 8th August this year, we can imagine that everything we consumed before that day – the fossil fuels we burned, the trees we felled, the food we ate – could all be replenished, sequestered, or otherwise “coped with” by the Earth if we spread that consumption over a year. But for the rest of the year – from the long August days of our Summer holidays, through to the ringing in of the New Year – everything we consume now represents the quantity of our over-consumption. The amount we’d need to cut out in order to reach some notion of sustainability.

This over-consumption is having real consequences. We are releasing carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere at a much faster rate than it can be absorbed, dangerously altering the chemical make-up of our planet and having drastic impacts on the climate and on ocean acidity. We are cutting down forests at a rate of about 50,000 square miles per year [1], and creating a global mass extinction, with extinction rates between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “background level” [2]. We are filling up our oceans with 8 million tonnes of plastic waste each year[3].

So we agree that as a global society, we need to consume less. We could consume less in total by each of us individually taking responsibility for consuming less, and by the governments, public services, corporations and other organisations that consume on our behalf also consuming less. We could also consume less globally if there were fewer humans – fewer humans means less consumption. That seems fairly obvious. This is the driving principle behind the campaign group Population Matters, and behind David Sanderson’s recent guest blogs for The Green Economy.

I don’t doubt any of this, but I do have two major concerns about focusing on population as the solution to our environmental problems. The first is that focusing on population may not be an effective use of resources for those of us concerned about environmental degradation and destruction. The second is that it may lead to a scape-goating attitude where we think that environmental problems are the responsibility and concern only of countries with large or rapidly growing populations.

So why might population growth not be a useful focus for our campaigning energies?

Birth rates are already coming down. Not because of concerns about global population, but as a consequence of female emancipation, education, access to family planning and reduced infant mortality rates. The animation below, created using, show how fertility has changed over time (vertical axis). Note here that fertility is measured as the number of children per woman. Each circle represents a different country, with the size of the circle representing the population. The colour represents the region of the world (yellow: Europe, red: Asia and Oceania, green: Americas, blue: Africa), and the horizontal axis represents infant mortality (deaths per 1,000 births).

Fertility vs infant mortality, 1800 to now

In 1800, all countries had high infant mortality rates. As we move in to the 20th century, improvements in medical care lead to significant drops in infant mortality, starting with the richer countries. As infant mortality rates become more diverse, the link with fertility can be seen. Improvements in contraception in middle of the 20th century lead to significant drops in fertility, until we arrive in 2015 when the vast majority of the world have fertility rates of between 1 and 3 children per woman. The UK fertility rate has dropped from about 5.0 in 1800, to about 1.9 now. In India, the birth rate has gone from about 6.0 to about 2.4 in the same time. There are still countries with high birth rate, largely in Sub-Saharan Africa, but even here mixed progress can be seen, with Uganda’s fertility dropping from 6.8 children per woman in 1800 to 5.7 now, whilst Djibouti in the same time dropped from 6.3 to 3.3 children per woman.

The point here is that vast progress is being made in the name of global development, economic development and humanitarianism – will the environmental perspective of lowering fertility as an aim in itself lead to any concrete improvements to ongoing successful programmes?

The other reason campaigning to reduce global population may not be an effective use of time is that  some population growth is now inevitable. Even if the birth rate leveled off now – that’s the total number of children born each year – the population would continue to increase until mid-century as larger cohorts age and replace smaller cohorts. There are far more 45-60 year olds alive now than 60-75 year olds, for example. This is partially because some people die before reaching this older age bracket, but much of the difference is because more people were born 45-60 years ago than 60-75 years ago. In 15 years time, therefore, even if the global birth rate levels off, we will expect a higher population. Factor in increased life expectancy in many countries, and some population growth seems completely inevitable. This concept was explained brilliantly by Hans Rosling in his documentary series “Don’t Panic” – see the links below for this recommended documentary on global development and population [4].

The quantity of this population growth, however, is not inevitable and, as David Sanderson points out in his article “Should we be worrying about the global population”, the UN’s projections for population by 2100, with a confidence of 95%, is between 9 billion and 14 billion people, and whilst there is an obvious difference between 9 billion and 14 billion, even the 9 billion figure could be very worrying. The Earth is not currently coping with 7 billion inhabitants – how will it cope with 9 billion? Not only that but the Earth is largely struggling to cope because of the lifestyles of the richest nations – the world could cope with many times more people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet than a typical US diet, for example [5]. As countries get richer, they inevitably want “Western lifestyles” – cars, cheap flights, the latest gadgets, and meat and dairy with every meal. The Earth could not cope with 2 billion people leading the lifestyle of the average American [6], so arguing about 9 billion vs 14 billion seems academic unless we tackle this extreme consumption.

The final reason that focusing on population may not be an effective use of campaigning time is that changing population dynamics is a slow process, and any glacial progress that is made may be wiped out by a failure of antibiotics pushing up infant mortality, or by financial crises leading to a baby boom, or any number of other factors that are largely out of campaigners’ control. In the best case scenario, where we can have an impact on the population, maybe achieving a plateau of 9 billion by 2100, we could already have irreversibly destroyed our oceans, rainforests and climate by then. We need solutions now. So we need to tackle consumption of the richer nations.

But surely we can do both? Surely we don’t have to choose between campaigning on population growth and consumption? This brings me on to my second concern about focusing on population; the potential for scapegoating, or “othering” the problem. By focusing on population, it is easy for people with small families to point to those with large families as the problem. It is easy for countries with small populations to point to those with large populations as the problem. And it is easy for those with stable populations to point to those with increasing populations as the problem. Focusing instead on the consumption per capita, the ecological footprint of each individual, leads to a complete paradigm shift. Through the paradigm of individual consumption we can think about what would be sustainable for each person, and work towards this at an individual and aggregate level. This leads to the idea of contraction and convergence – rich nations will need to do more to bring down their consumption, whilst all nations aim for a common goal of sustainability. The paradigm of populations leads to very different conclusions, with the focus being taken away from high consumption countries and shifted on to countries with large populations or high birth rates, effectively ignoring the responsibility of many of the individuals who are leading the most unsustainable lifestyles.

In summary, yes, I think we can agree that population does matter, and we should continue with global development initiatives which reduce fertility by improving infant mortality rates, improving opportunities for women, and increasing access to family planning. But given the already unsustainable levels of consumption, the inevitability of some population growth, the already declining birth rates, and given the glacial speed and potential futility of campaigning for lower populations, I would conclude that the efforts of all concerned environmentalists would be best spent in making changes to our wasteful consumerist lifestyles, rather than trying to reduce populations.

So with a focus on consumption rather than population, here they are, my top 4 priorities for creating a sustainable society:

  • Moving away from fossil fuels. 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. A radical programme of energy efficiency, increasing renewable energy capacity, improving energy storage technologies, and lifestyle change will be needed to replace our dependence on cheap oil.
  • Moving away from meat and dairy consumption. Meat and dairy require more land, more water, and more fossil fuels than a vegetarian diet. The Earth can support far more people on a vegetarian or vegan diet than on a typical “Western” diet. As an aside, there is a growing body of evidence that the diet that is best for the planet may also be the diet that is best for our health [7].
  • Creating circular economies. We can’t continue extracting raw materials, creating disposable goods and then filling up our oceans and landfill sites with our debris. We need to find new methods of production which are circular, with reuse, repair and recyclability designed in to products.
  • Equality. More equal societies care more about sustainability. This is one of the surprising findings of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in their seminal book The Spirit Level, which also found that more equal societies do better on a wide range of social indicators. In more unequal societies people try to “keep up with the Jones’”. The same is true on a global level, with developing nations wanting to “keep up with the Americans”. I find it hard to envisage a sustainable society which has such incredible levels of inequality within countries or between them as we have today [8].

AIbEiAIAAABECKHo45WWzJPW3wEiC3ZjYXJkX3Bob3RvKig1ZjM4NmYyYmQxMDA2MGE3NTlhZTI4ZWZkMTFjYzY1NDZlMTRkOWJmMAENyP3iAjRa0U22UU0lzNsunyXX_wAndy Hunter-Rossall is a maths teacher in Oldham and the secretary of Oldham & Saddleworth Green Party.








[8] (lecture 3)